Role of Arctic Radar Site Stirs Controversy in Norway
Norway’s outbound defense minister, Kristin Krohn Devold, refuted fresh claims that the Air Force’s controversial arctic-based radar installation in Vardø forms part of the U.S. national missile defense system.
Norwegian officials have long denied that Vardø has any defense role that benefits the United States in real-time intelligence, despite doubts expressed by Russia and some Norwegian defense analysts.
Russia has been complaining to Norway since the installation opened in 1998 that Vardø’s X-band radar plays a key role in collecting critical intelligence data on Russia’s long-range ballistic missile systems and, therefore, violates international missile treaties.
Devold’s denial echoes Norwegian government policy on Vardø and the radar installation’s possible role within the developing U.S. missile defense shield.
During an Oct. 16 press conference in Oslo, the now-former defense minister described Vardø as a “radar station which is used to track satellites and debris movements in outer space.”
However, in an Oct. 15 interview aired by the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK, Philip Coyle, former chief weapons tester for the Pentagon and now a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank, said Vardø’s role included gathering important data relating to possible missile attacks by Russia and China over the North Pole.
The NRK report said Coyle became familiar with the role of the Vardø radar facility, which operates under the code-name Have Stare, when he worked at the Pentagon in the 1990s. “The Vardø radar is very important for the American missile defense program,” Coyle told NRK.
George N. Lewis, a senior defense researcher at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., during that same broadcast said: “Absolutely, the Vardø radar plays a role in America’s missile defense program.”
The reawakening of public interest in Vardø produced a statement from the United States, delivered through its embassy in Oslo Oct. 19, that denied any connection between the Vardø radar system and America’s missile defense NMD system.
“Contrary to recent reports that have appeared in the media, the Vardø radar system has never been a part of the U.S. missile defense system. Furthermore, there are no plans to include the Vardø radar system in the U.S. missile defense system in the future,” the statement said. Despite the statement and Devold’s denial, Norwegian defense analysts continue to question the Vardø radar’s real function. Terje Wahl, a senior defense systems adviser at Norway’s National Space Center (NSC), said Vardø radar is a valuable tool for the U.S. missile defense program.
According to Wahl, the Vardø radar is a joint Norwegian-American initiative to monitor orbital debris that might pose a threat to satellites like the ones in geostationary orbit that are used to detect missile launches. That the Vardø radar fulfills an important role as part of the American missile defense system is openly recognized within military circles in Norway and the United States, said Wahl.
The Vardø radar installation has a special technical capacity and is situated much farther east than most U.S. radar systems. The apparent advantage is that the Vardø radar allows for the monitoring of stationary satellites over geopolitically strategic nations.
Russia has held fast its belief that the Vardø radar’s main function is military, arguing that for optimum effectiveness, radar tracking space debris should be positioned along the equator and not in northern Norway. These same intergovernmental contacts have served to communicate the view from Moscow that the U.S.-linked Vardø radar is used to collect radar signatures from Russian missiles, warheads and decoys as they are tested in east-west flight high above the Russian hinterland.
Norwegian defense intelligence sources continue to offer little comment on whether there is a real-time link between the Vardø radar and America’s missile defense system.
“The Vardø radar collects a lot of information on a daily basis that comes from monitoring objects in space. Just how this data is used concretely, by America for example, is difficult for me to say,” Tom Rykken, a divisional director at the Defense Intelligence Service in Oslo, said in an Oct. 15 statement.